Opinion: The late great Andrew Cuomo

By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders

After decades of late state budgets and years of sleepy gubernatorial ineptitude, including one governor who was forced to resign following a prostitution scandal, Andrew Cuomo came roaring into the Albany State House vowing to change things. Almost six years later one must wonder what has happened to that guy?

His first term was punctuated with bold and aggressive action. It was “I won’t take no for an answer” style of leadership. Cuomo negotiated six consecutive on time budgets saving local governments millions of dollars. He reigned in Medicaid overspending costs which was threatening to bankrupt the state treasury with its yearly double digit increases. He limited property tax hikes, saving homeowners a bundle. He pushed a recalcitrant Republican State Senate to pass a marriage equality law legalizing gay unions and new restrictions on the sale of guns and ammunition just days following the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

But faced with the greatest crisis of public confidence in state government history, Governor Cuomo seems to have lost his nerve and his edge. The last number of years have seen a parade of public officials, mostly from the state legislature, indicted or convicted of felonies and abuse of their official positions. It culminated with the conviction and ouster of the leaders of the State Assembly and the State Senate, one a Democrat and one a Republican. Each now faces years in prison.

Sure, last week he approved what was described as an important ethics reform bill. But it missed the mark, by a lot. It is curious that the otherwise tenacious Andrew Cuomo settled for way less than half a loaf on what may be the defining moment for Albany on the matter of honesty and transparency in government.

The ethics “reform” legislation signed into law by Cuomo does essentially two things: It cracks down on the illegal “coordination” between certain “independent” groups that raise and expend money for political campaigns and the candidate’s actual campaign. The new law also increases disclosure requirements of persons who make contributions to not-for-profit organizations that use some or all of their donations for political purposes in election campaigns. All well and good.

However, the reforms that the public are clamoring for and are urgently needed were not included in the new law. The governor did not go to the mat to limit excessive contributions from limited liability corporations (LLCs) which are outside of the ambit of the campaign contribution laws and can give money to favored candidates with virtually no limits. The governor himself has been the biggest beneficiary of this “LLC loophole.” The governor did little to limit outside income that would constitute a conflict of interest, nor did he insist on a law that would cause convicted public officials to forfeit all or part of their tax payer funded state pensions. Currently convicted former legislators and others, are depositing pension checks that approach six figures annually or more, some are even collecting these payments while they are in prison. Nor did the governor put up much of a fight to enact true campaign finance reform over Republican objections which would place limits on how much any campaign for state office may expend.

There are similar laws in place for New York City political campaigns.

Where was the governor who rammed through the State Senate with his power and considerable persuasion, the gun law and the marriage equality law? Why is Cuomo seemingly impotent to get true ethics reforms and campaign spending laws passed while criminal abuses are threatening the very viability of state government? Without public confidence in its institutions and officials, democracy is severely undermined. It lends credence to the claims by some of a “rigged system.”

I hope that the answer is not that because Andrew Cuomo lavishly benefits from these outdated and lax campaign contribution and spending laws, enriching his coffers by tens of millions of dollars, he cynically wants to preserve the status quo.

The powerhouse governor who was able to work his will on other tough issues seems like a mere shadow of himself on ethics and campaign finance matters, crouching behind a reluctant and intransigent legislature. I don’t know what the answer is, but as the “deep throat” informant in the Nixon Watergate scandal whispered to the two Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, “follow the money.”

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